We test the first and last of the 250 triples
Two generations of Kawasaki 250cc triples go head to head
B ack in 1972 Kawasaki dropped a bombshell into the 250cc class. Their new 250cc offering – replacing the Samurai twin – was something special. At a time when most 250s were workaday singles, or twins at best, the S1 triple must have seemed gloriously exotic. Three cylinders and three exhaust pipes made wonderful, unique music while the 249cc engine pushed out a claimed 32bhp and was good for close to the magic ton. Styling mirrored that of the 750cc H2, and if ever a bike deserved to take the 250 class by storm surely this was it.
Eight years later, having gained a front disc brake and a few pounds in weight and lost 4bhp, the last of the line of 250 triples from Kawasaki limped out of dealers’ showrooms having been first eclipsed by a new breed of super-fast lightweight twins in the shape of Suzuki’s X7 and the Yamaha RD250LC, then dealt a mortal blow (in the UK at least) by the new 125cc restriction on learner riders. In 1981, unsold stocks of the last B5 models of the KH were being offered for as little as £250. It was an inglorious end for a brave concept – and what is a very fine bike. Back in the day, the KH250 was the butt of many a disparaging comment – its riders famously derided for having single-figure brain cell counts. It was tarred with the same brush as Kawasaki’s bigger triples in the handling stakes and its reliability was constantly called into question.
Of course, most of those dishing the dirt had never owned or even ridden a 250cc Kawasaki triple.
Those who had knew they were on to a good thing. And today, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s obvious that most of the abuse was entirely unjustified. What the Kawasaki triple brought to the 250 class was glamour, refinement and a welcome whiff of excess.
Now, nearly 40 years after the last few bargainbasement KH250S smoked self-consciously out of Kawasaki dealerships, a growing number of classic bike fans are starting to appreciate the merits of these little bikes. And we’ve brought a pair of them – a 1974 S1-B and a last-of-the-line 1980 KH250-B5 – to South Yorkshire to see what the growing fuss is about.
This bike belongs to S-series specialist Simon Lister, who runs Kawasaki triples parts suppliers Triple Parts. Fellow triples nut Neil Mccallum bought the bike a few years ago in Weston-super-mare, got it running and took it to the annual Triples Club rally, where Simon spotted it and realised it was a rare, genuine UK market S1-B. “I already owned a 1972 model, so this one really appealed,” Simon says. “My passion is for the 250s, so I did a deal with Neil and bought it. It won ‘Best Rat Bike’ at that rally, but it looks a bit different now.”
Indeed it does. You’d be hard pressed to find a better
‘AT THE HEART OF THE S1 IS A SMOOTH YET PUNCHY THREE-CYLINDER ENGINE WITH A 120° CRANK’
example than this Candy Green 250. Simon has restored the bike over the last four years and it’s only recently gone back on the road. “I gave it the works,” Simon smiles. “I stripped it, got the crank rebuilt, powder coated the frame, polished the engine cases and got the exhaust system rechromed. It’s the original exhaust for the bike with the correct stampings for the year. That was one of the things that attracted me to the bike in the first place. It was scruffy, but it was so original.”
Simon’s S1-B sits in the middle of the S1 series. The original 1972 model – simply designated the S1 – was the most powerful 250 triple Kawasaki ever produced. And, with its Pearl White paintwork (red was an option in some markets) and H1-inspired graphics, the S1 offered a claimed 32bhp to the learner rider and a top speed a shade short of 100mph. It was unashamedly all about performance – just like Kawasaki’s bigger triples and, though Kawasaki’s UK distribution network was no match for rival Suzuki, Honda and Yamaha set-ups, the dealers sold all they could get of the new model. For 1973, the S1-A must have seemed something of a comedown. Porting, jetting and silencer revisions brought power down to 28bhp and the gold, blue or orange colour options must have seemed scant consolation to speed-crazed learner riders. The following year’s S1-B was redeemed by the gorgeous Candy Green paintwork and there were minor revisions to the rear shocks, seat and choke lever (moved to the left-hand ’bar). The final S1 model, the S1-C, appeared for 1975 – offered solely in the unromantically named Halibut Blue colour scheme – after which the 250 triples were redesignated as KH250S.
At the heart of the S1 is the smooth yet punchy threecylinder engine with its 120° crank. It’s the first thing that impresses me on the road. Simon has only had time to put a handful of miles on the bike since finishing it, so I’m ultra-conservative with the revs, but the smoothness of the S1 engine is remarkable. Short-shifting through the five-speed gearbox, each ratio clicks into place
positively and, with just a subdued rasp from the stock silencers, it feels a very sophisticated 250. I’m sure once the bike is run in, a different side of its nature will be liberated, but for now it’s a model of civility.
Simon has got the twin-leading-shoe front brake set up perfectly too. It certainly doesn’t lose out on power or feel compared to the disc on the later KH250 and the rear drum is quietly competent, too. At the relatively modest speeds dictated by the freshly-rebuilt engine, the handling proved excellent.
Don’t believe the old scare stories about Kawasaki triples. Simon’s S1-B is smooth, civilised and will doubtless prove as fast as most of its contemporaries. What’s more, it’s a great looking bike that’ll turn heads anywhere. That sounds like reason enough to own one.
The last of the line, this unrestored B5 is owned by Paul Whittaker, who bought it seven years ago. “I bought my first KH250 28 years ago,” the Lancashire-based welder and fabricator reveals. “I hated it. I picked it up from Doug Hacking Motorcycles in Bolton and rode it home, but that was about it. I never used it again. But when I met Simon (Lister) about 10 years ago, he got me excited about triples again. Now I own at least one of each capacity – and I’ve still got that first one I owned, too.”
Paul is a lot more enthusiastic about KH250S these days. “I love the 250,” he agrees. “It’s only small, but it just keeps going. They’re bombproof. It’s pretty nippy up to 70mph. I rode it to the Classic TT the year before last and I haven’t really had to touch it since I bought it. It had fresh paintwork when I bought it and I’ve just kept it tidy. I’ve got restored bikes, but this one is a regular rider. There are plenty of KHS about, so parts aren’t a problem. It’s just a fun bike to ride and that exhaust makes it sound faster than it is.”
Certainly, the KH series are the definitive learner triples from the big K and KHS sold in their thousands. They share most of their DNA with the earlier S1s, but they remain more affordable and easier to find. The first KH250 was the 1976 KH250-A6. This short-lived model retained the twin-leading-shoe front brake of the S1-C it replaced, but it was itself superseded by the disc-braked KH250-B1 – available in Super Red or Sky Blue – later that same year. In 1977, power dipped yet again, to 26bhp, on the Wine Red or Orient Blue KH250-B2. The 1978 B3 variant was the first of the line to appear in Kawasaki’s trademark Lime Green (Cobalt Blue was also an option) and there was a redesigned seat and new brake master cylinder. For ’79, the B4 model featured Lime Green or Classic White paintwork and black side panels, while the final B5 version, for 1980, was only offered in Racing Lime
‘THE KH SHARES DNA WITH THE S1 BUT IS MORE AFFORDABLE AND EASIER TO FIND’
‘THE FUN FACTOR IS WHAT THESE 250 TWO-STROKES ARE ALL ABOUT ’
Green with a ‘KH’ logo applied to the side of the seat. By 1980, though, the KH250’S performance had been eclipsed by the Suzuki X7 and new Yamaha RD250LC. Kawasaki knew the two-stroke era of domination was over; what remained, though, was the character of the triple – and no amount of technical progress could replace that for some riders. Riders like Paul Whittaker.
Paul’s bike looks like a typical KH250 might have done in the early ’80s. It’s a perfect counterpoint to the catalogue-correct restoration of Simon’s S1. Though the KH hasn’t been restored, the paintwork is new and the exhausts are a lovely set of period aftermarket items by Codnor Light Manufacturing – the forerunner to Micron. The blow-formed expansion chambers look perfect on the Racing Lime Green bike, while the crisp crackle from the ‘silencers’ tempts me into the powerband – which starts at around 6500rpm – just to turn up the volume and hear the exhaust note harden.
The engine spins up delightfully and, even though there’s decent torque on tap low down in the range, it’s more fun to get the motor spinning in the power. Hit 6000rpm, shriek up to 7500rpm, change up, repeat.
The relatively long wheelbase (1375mm) gives stable and predictable handling, especially with modern tyres. But, because the KH is so compact, it never feels like hard labour to change direction quickly, either. Ground clearance is likely to be the only limiting factor governing just how far you can push the little triple.
But it’s the fun factor that 250 two-strokes are all about – and the KH250 certainly delivers that. It’ll probably hit 85mph, it’s small enough to chuck about and acceleration is rapid enough to bring a smile to your face – and you really can’t say fairer than that. As Simon Lister says: “I love all the triples, but the 250s are what we all had in the day. Nail the arse off them and they love it. They’re made for revving.” Quite.
S1-B carb jetting robbed it of a little power
Asymmetric exhaust is Kwak triple trademark
Smooth and sophisticated (the S1-B, not Gez)
‘They all seize on the middle pot don’t they?’ Not necessarily
Layout of the clocks and warning lights on the S1 is simple and clean
Lime green paint screams ‘Kawasaki.’ Expansion chamber pipes just scream
LEFT: S1 and KH riders’ eye views are very similar
TOP: Black rear mudguard on the KH differs from S1
ABOVE: KH’S disc front brake is a decent stopper
ABOVE: With similar performance, it all depends which shade of green you prefer...
Lights, camera... the bike’s the star